ST. LOUIS — Marcus Johnson Jr.'s parents figured a sunny day at the park was just what their son needed while recovering from heart surgery.
Instead, the outing turned deadly when the 6-year-old was shot in the chest in an attack the parents said stemmed from a traffic dispute. They were to bury their boy Thursday, just over a week after the family visited O'Fallon Park on the north side of St. Louis following a doctor's appointment.
The occupants of a car fired on the family's minivan as it left the park. The boy's 15-year-old brother and a 69-year-old family friend were also wounded.
The boy's father, Marcus Johnson Sr., said he returned fire in self-defense as the rolling shootout continued for several blocks. Three other children — ages 8, 10 and 11 — were also in the vehicle.
Police say the March 11 shooting remains under investigation but declined to discuss specifics.
Officer Don Re was less reticent in his personal blog, describing in detail his response to a "senseless death" when he was called to the hospital where another officer had driven the child in his patrol car rather than wait for an ambulance.
"We were all hoping, but we also knew that it was going to take a miracle for that boy to live," he wrote. "He was not granted that miracle."
"Why did this boy have to die?" he continued. "Was it disrespect? Drugs? A woman? Money? All stupid reasons to fire a gun anywhere near another human being, let alone children, but here we are again, with another child lost to violence."
The young heart patient's death rattled St. Louis, which has been enduring a crime surge. The 2014 homicide rate was one of the city's highest in nearly two decades.
"There was a line drawn," funeral director Ronald Jones said, referring to an unwritten code of the streets that protected the innocent from violence. "Kids, family — they were off-limits."
In an unrelated incident, a 1-year-old boy was shot in both legs Tuesday in another city park. That child survived.
The elder Johnson, 33, said his youngest son was diagnosed with a heart ailment as an infant. He and his wife, Qiana Johnson, lost another child in 2012, a son who suffocated in his sleep at 4 months old.
The dispute at the park apparently began when Marcus Johnson Sr. had a brief conversation with an acquaintance in a nearby car that stopped while the two chatted. A passenger in another vehicle got out of that car to express his displeasure, they said.
"He just looked at us like he had the devil in his eyes," said Qiana Johnson, 34, a stay-at-home mother who is five months pregnant. "I saw the expression on his face and didn't feel comfortable anymore."
Marcus Johnson Sr. said his son was unrelentingly cheerful despite his condition, which required daily medication to control inflammation of his blood vessels and extra caution to prevent falls that could lead to bruising and blood clots.
"He'd come in the room and smile," his father said through tears, the hospital visitor's badge from two weeks ago still on his sweatshirt. "He'd light up the whole room."
Community support has been swift. After reports that the family needed $5,000 to cover funeral costs, an online fundraising campaign by a St. Louis alderman generated nearly three times that amount.
Jones said the family will need that help and more to cover unpaid medical costs for their 15-year-old son, who was shot in the ankle, and to move out of a neighborhood where they have become a target since the shooting.
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